Kathryn, second from the left, with the novice team of the West Yorkshire Goalball Club.
This month we chat to Kathryn Fielding of Goalball UK.
Kathryn has dedicated the last 20 years of her life to Goalball, last year winning the British Empire Medal in recognition for her work. We talk to Kathryn about how she came to the sport, how she’s helped develop it and her hopes for the future.
“I started working with [people with] visual impairment throughout Yorkshire and across all sports, naturally goalball was a big part of that and once you get into goalball, you don’t get out.”
It’s a similar story for many involved with goalball. It’s a sport that draws people in and captures their imagination.
Listen to the full interview below, or carry on reading for a shortened text version.
Accessibility of goalball
Kathryn believes its appeal is in the accessibility for visually impaired people.
“I think the fact that it is a sport designed specifically for blind and partially sighted people, it means that there’s probably not quite as much anxiety about it for blind or partially sighted people. It’s reverse integration.
A lot of people have been told you can’t do this, you can’t do that. And Goalball gives them opportunities and maybe shows them what can be achieved. Plus it’s a very, very warm and open environment.”
On Twitter those involved in Goalball use the hashtag #GoalballFamily and the community that surrounds the sport has a special vibe.
“Everyone helps each other out. And I think there’s not many sports where you’ll see a player from an opposition team go sit on the bench of another team to help them out. They’ll share coaching tips, and everyone’s kind of in it together. People look out for each other in ways that you might not get in other sports.”
Kathryn typifies this spirit, “Any club that needs help, I’ll give it.” she says.
Kathryn has worked for Goalball UK for many years and describes herself as the dinosaur of the team. She is involved in a host of activities including; club development, tournaments, coach education and schools delivery work.
A passion for goalball coaching
Coaching is where her passion lies and she currently coaches a number of teams, alongside her main coaching role with West Yorkshire. As part of her development role with Goalball UK she helps to set up clubs but finding coaches for the new teams can be tough and she often continues to coach the teams herself.
“Recently I’ve been working with South Wales, based in Cardiff, and Blackburn and other clubs. I also set up South Yorkshire in 2010 and I’ve still not managed to, in the nicest possible way, palm them off to anybody else yet.”
She has also been involved at the highest levels, going to three European Championships, a World Games and a Paralympics.
But her real love is the grass-roots game.
“It sounds a bit cheesy, but for me a Novice tournament in Sheffield is equally as important [as the big international tournaments] and seeing players score that first goal or stop that first penalty.”
The role of the coach is varied in the sport and made more challenging by the uniqueness of each individual player.
“Working with an athlete who has never ever had sight is very different to working with someone who has maybe had sight and then lost it. Maybe their tracking skills and their mobility will be different to someone who has had sight. And so it’s very, very personalized, I think you need to know a little about the history of the person.
People come into the sport at different ages with different backgrounds. We have Novice, Intermediate and Elite in terms of levels of play, but people have very different journeys before they get to that point.”
Developing coaching standards
To help coaches overcome some of these challenges Kathryn has helped to develop a coaching standard.
There is currently no manual on goalball coaching, and within the sport there has been the expectation that coaches will teach themselves. Kathryn thinks that this needs to change.
“If you’ve been coaching football, there are certain go to attacking drills and defensive drills and we just want to have those kind of things in place to help new coaches coming through. We’ve got minimum standards for clubs now, to make sure that they’re open and welcoming. We’re trying to work on new levels of coaching and align them to other sports so there is progression and pathways for coaches.”
This is more important as the sport further professionalizes. Since Kathryn’s involvement in the game started she has seen the introduction of biomechanics, nutritionists and psychologists, describing these changes as “exciting”.
“It’s not just people chucking the ball around the sports hall any more, it really is a top level Paralympic sport and it’s growing.”
And the catalyst for that sort of development? A national governing body and the greater funding that came with London 2012.
“We’re sitting at the table now with the other national governing bodies: the FA and the RFU and the ECB. There are people who are working to develop the sport, so that has had an impact, then the London 2012 Paralympics was obviously massive in that more people suddenly got to find out what goalball was all about.”
The role of Goalfix
Goalfix has also played a part in the sport’s development.
“Goalfix first got involved in 2010 since then the relationship’s grown, they’ve been great. They’re not just a commercial organisation, they genuinely care about goalball.
They’ll do what they can to help not just goalball but the other blind sports develop as well. So we’re really pleased to be involved with them.
The eye shades have made the sport a lot more professional. When I got involved, it was DIY stuff and now everything just looks really good.”
But the country is still yet to have any professional goalball players unlike some other European countries and this next step in the development of the sport is tough to achieve.
“Its a vicious circle,” laments Kathryn, “unfortunately, it’s about gold medals. You need medals to get money, but you need money to get medals. So it’s really hard.”
Its especially hard for European teams as qualification to the games is particularly competitive.
“If you look at the qualification status for Paralympic Games, it’s hard. To use a bit of a football analogy, it’s like every World Cup you’re either going to be missing a Holland or a Spain or another big team because not everyone can qualify. And it’s the same in goalball. There’s so many really good European teams. And unfortunately, we just keep missing the cut.”
But the future does look bright for the sport.
“When you start looking to [the next Paralympic games in] Paris 2024 it’s quite exciting with the people I’m seeing on the court. There’s some real, real talent and obviously as the bottom of the pyramid gets wider the top is going to get bigger as well. And standards are being driven up. So it’s exciting, really exciting.”
New to goalball? Read our introduction to the sport of Goalball
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